Photographing Fall Color in the Eastern Sierras
The eastern Sierra’s are California’s best kept secret. Especially in the fall, they are a photographer’s paradise. Extending south from the northern California border to Mt. Whitney and the Mojave Desert they include some of the most beautiful mountains in the lower 48 as well as some of the most forbidding spots in the west. There are lots of possibilities for getting off the beaten path. Some of my Favorite spots are around Mono Lake and the town of Bishop and its many canyons. Speaking of canyons, Lundy Canyon north of Lee Vining is a great place to start our exploration. Driving south on Highway 395 a few miles down a steep grade after the Mono Lake Vista pullout, the only signage for Lundy Canyon is a small sign on your right that says Lundy Lakes. Following that road west brings you to Lundy Lake itself with a couple of vista points. Keep going around the lake and you come to an old resort that surrounds the road. It looks like private property, but it isn’t. Continue your drive up a narrow, winding road and you’ll reach the first of a series of beaver ponds with mountain vista's surrounding them. In the fall these mountains are covered with golden aspens and the mountains are snow-covered. It’s a landscape photographers dream. Plan to get there at sunrise and stay a couple of hours. You won’t regret it.
Continuing your drive south, you will pass through the small town of Lee Vining and the road to Tioga Pass and Yosemite. Keep going until you see a sign on your right for June Lake Loop. Driving slowly west, then south and finally east back to Highway 395 you will pass a multitude of photo ops including beautiful lakes, aspen groves and the Sierra Nevada range right outside your car window. Don’t hurry. Stop, get out of your vehicle and explore. This is another morning location and you will need 3-4 hours to adequately explore it. My favorite spot is up a gravel road on the right about 4 miles in from the highway. Drive up this well-maintained gravel road a couple miles and you’ll be rewarded with awesome mountain scenes.
Returning to June Lake Loop Road you’ll pass Grant Lake, Silver Lake, Gull Lake and finally in the town of June Lake, June Lake itself, all on your left. On your right, you can almost reach out and touch the Sierra Nevada’s. There are nice campgrounds near all these lakes with the largest at Silver Lake and June Lake plus lodging just past Silver Lake and in June Lake itself.
Heading on down the road 56 miles, you come to Bishop, California home to Galen and Barbara Rowell. If you’re a landscape photographer and don’t know Galen Rowell’s work, you should. They’re long gone. Killed in an untimely aircraft accident, but their gallery persists and it’s well worth a visit. Their son, Tony Rowell, continues the family photographic tradition. You’ll also recognize the work of many well-known landscape photographers while you’re there. Find a place to stay and plan to spend several days exploring the canyons west and north of Bishop. There’s a nice RV campground just north of Bishop itself plus a host of motels and restaurants for a town of 3,863.
Start by driving west on Highway 168 AKA West Line Road to Aspendell. This accurately named residential community is surrounded by aspens. One of the prettiest spots is along Cardinal Road, the second right in town. At the end of the road is the rustic resort called Cardinal Village, a great place for a snack, a souvenir, a bathroom stop and especially for ice cream.
Continuing up the hill, take the first right on North Lake Road. After crossing the Middle Fork of Bishop Creek, you begin a steep climb to North Lake itself. The road is narrow, but with pullouts and some steep drop-offs on your right. Near the top is a parking area on your left. Park here and walk a few hundred yards to a viewpoint with North Lake and aspens in the foreground and the Sierra’s for a background. Further up North Lake Road it becomes aspen lined on both sides so as to create a tunnel and a photo op. Driving back down the road to Highway 168 look for a pull-out on your left and beautiful views on your right.
Continuing west on Highway 168 you come to Lake Sabrina, but before you get there stop where the road crosses the Middle Fork of Bishop Creek. Not much parking here, but it’s worth the effort for the views up and down a creek surrounded by aspens. Early is better for the light and the parking, but because of the canyon location it’s not necessary to be here at sunrise.
However, sunrise is necessary for Lake Sabrina which is just up the road. Lake Sabrina is a reservoir that sits in a mountain bowl. The west end of the lake is surrounded by beautiful mountains on which grow large groves of aspens. The lake is quite large and the mountains distant, so at least a 200mm lens is needed to photograph the far shore or hire a boat. This is primarily a fishing lake, so boat rentals are available.
Coming back down the road, there are large numbers of aspen groves on your right with occasional pullouts worth exploring. However, the next major road is South Lake Road taking you to of course South Lake. It’s a beautiful drive with many mountain scenes covered in aspen groves worth photographing. This road is still productive after the leaves at North Lake are gone. In the recent drought years, South Lake itself has been dry or nearly so in the fall, so that the road to it has been the most productive. Hopefully, that will change in 2017.
There are many more places to explore around Bishop, but I’ll leave those for another day. Thanks for looking and reading. The Eastern Sierra’s are a great location for fall color and the above only scratches the surface. Come explore it for yourself.